As people age, their spinal discs begin to deteriorate, causing pain in the back and neck. It is estimated that 40 percent of people ages 40 and older, and 80 percent of those ages 80 and older, suffer from degenerative disc disease, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Degenerative disc disease occurs as spinal discs in the body, which separate the interlocking bones that make up the spine, begin to age or break down. This results in pain, and surgery may be necessary to help ease the discomfort and suffering.
Degenerative disc disease is often a result of age-related changes in the body, like tiny tears or cracks in the outer layer of the discs, or the loss of fluid in the discs. It is also more common in those who smoke, are obese, or repeatedly engage in physical labor.
Along with pain in the lower back and neck, degenerative disc disease can also lead to osteoarthritis, the breakdown of the cartilage that cushions the joints; a herniated disc, an abnormal bulge or breaking open of spinal disc; or spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal — the open space in the spine that holds the spinal cord.
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To diagnose degenerative disc disease, a physician will first check the source of the injury for pain and range of motion. They will examine the area for nerve-related changes or changes in reflexes, and will also check the affected area for fractures, tumors and infection. If nerve damage is suspected or symptoms develop after an injury, an X-ray will be ordered for further diagnosis.
When suffering from degenerative disc disease, you can help relieve pain by doing exercises to strengthen and stretch your back. Putting heat or ice on the affected area, and taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, can also help with pain relief. If the pain is more severe, your physician may prescribe stronger medications, or recommend surgery to remove or replace the damaged disc.
A common surgery for degenerative disc disease is a lumbar spine fusion. During this procedure, the affected disc is removed and small pieces of bone are placed in front of, or along the back of the spine. As the bone grows together during a period of three to six months, this fuses this section of the spine. As a result, back and leg pain is lessened or even eliminated.
This procedure can be ideal for patients who have not experienced relief from physical therapy or medications, or have ongoing back and leg pain that keeps them from being able to function at home or at work.
If you suffer from symptoms of degenerative disc disease, consult your physician for an examination and to discuss treatment options. If therapy and medication do not provide relief, lumbar spine fusion may be an appropriate treatment method.
Dr. James Rice is with Kentucky Orthopedics Associates and is a surgeon at Saint Joseph East.